Notes of a traveller

Alan Dodds – photographer (among other things)

Notes of a traveller

The start of the Grand European Tour

Posted on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Saturday 24th May and the start of a new adventure which will take us to Europe via Thailand returning in early September. Leaving our home in Noosa at four in the morning we didn’t think too much about the journey ahead. Eighteen hours and several movies and airline meals later we are being driven through the evening traffic of Phuket Island on the way to the Casa Del M hotel in Patong. It may have been more correct to say Patong Beach at one time, but these days Patong sprawls far back from the beach into the hills surrounding the bay. It is full monsoon season here and we are treated to a downpour. Outside the car window the motorcyclists don their thin plastic raincoats, small comfort in the torrential rain. The Casa Del M sits at the beginning of those hills just off the main road that winds down from the pass above and luckily the rain has stopped again as we arrive. It is hot and humid.

The view of the forest from our window
The view of the forest in the rain from our window

We are shown to our room … a deluxe room on the fifth floor with a balcony looking out across the sprawl of Patong to the bay, and a side window full of the rain-forested hillside and coconut palms. We wonder just how we managed to be in such a room when we look back to our travels of the past when we stayed in much less comfortable places. Not that we are complaining: our ageing bodies appreciate it and we are interested how one’s view of these things changes as life goes on.

Exhausted and we are soon asleep … airconditioning humming in the background.

Sunday and we are awake at three due to the change of time zone … we are three hours ahead of Queensland … but a cup of tea settles us and we sleep again for another three hours.

Next to one of the small roads on the hill behind us is a small roadside shrine next to a huge old tree.
Next to one of the small roads on the hill behind us is a small shrine next to a huge old tree.

Arriving in the breakfast restaurant well on time on this first morning, the three hour time difference has left our stomachs empty. We find ourselves surrounded by asian faces and with some surprise notice how the idea of racial superiority is ingrained in our very beings, those of us who come from the white colonialist races. Even though we speak of equality for all, there is a small voice somewhere deep down in there which is muttering, “surely they built these resorts for us?” “Do people from Asian countries really take holidays? How can they afford it, aren’t they all poor?”

Oh dear … how strong conditioning is … all that propaganda in our youth! Sometimes we really find it hard to remember that the world has changed so radically from our childhood. I was born in the year before India was given it’s independence … we (the royal british We, of course) still ran The Empire … I mean! And we think of ourselves as emancipated travellers who have worked a few things out! Worrying really. It does go some way towards explaining, though, the readiness of so many in the world to take up arms for one belief or another in the name of that belief’s obviously superior nature. Greed, hatred and delusion … around and around it goes, this wheel of life we spin on, so full of propaganda.

An early walking meditation after breakfast, takes me down towards the beach which is a fifteen minute stroll away. The humidity is already high; traffic light on a Sunday morning; smells of cooking in the air; puddles from last nights rain; broken bottles from the nights revelries in Bangla road; cavernous empty bars stripped of their nighttime glitz; street food stalls ready for breakfast; the smell of garlic and drains and frangipanis assault the nose as the traffic increases; the thai people are so ready to smile given a chance; families pass three or four to a small motorbike. Yes, this feels like Patong Beach.

Another day, and we catch the hotel shuttle down to the beach and have lunch in a beach side restaurant. Good food and cheap; eating is one of our main pleasures here. Few of the other entertainments on hand really tempt us, and we decide that Thailand (Patong in particular) is not a heart place for us, in the same way that Bali or India or Nepal are. We decide to use our time here to rest and read, meditate and catch up with our french. We have a comfortable room with an airconditioner if we want it. Elephant rides, parasailing over the bay, Thai boxing matches, endless shops and visiting adjoining beaches don’t seem to have much attraction and we decide it is ok not to go that way.

Lots of good cheap food to choose from at this small beach-side cafe.
Lots of good cheap food to choose from at this small beach-side cafe.
Lots to entertain us as we eat lunch. The one who pays is strapped in, but the one who doesn't pay is just holding onto the strings.
Lots to entertain us as we eat lunch. The one who pays is strapped in, but the one who doesn’t pay is just holding onto the strings.

Another day passes and my morning walk takes me past the local school with the morning drop off in full swing. No four wheel drives here. Motorbikes with mother and two or three children stacked in front and behind, pull up at the school to the accompaniment of a police whistle encouraging the traffic to comply. It must be a special day. The children are all particularly neat and tidy and the boys have on what looks like their scout uniform. Later I find that it is a special new moon, and we have missed an invitation to go to the nearby Buddhist temple with the young woman behind the hotel tour counter: she mentioned it to us yesterday but we missed it’s significance.

The Buddhist temple, Wat Suwan Khiriwong, is just along the road from us with the main road from Phuket town just outside it’s walls. Yesterday’s visit revealed locked gates all around and all we could do was look from the car park. How ornate these Wat’s are … very different from the Buddhist temples we are used to in India and Nepal.

Wat Suwan Khiriwong with its ornate decoration, so different to the Gompas in India and Nepal.
Wat Suwan Khiriwong with its ornate decoration, so different to the Gompas in India and Nepal.
A row of monks meditate safe behind the walls.
A row of monks meditate safe behind the walls.
There be dragons everywhere around here ...
There be dragons everywhere round ‘ere …

Past the Wat, I take the back road which winds it’s way along the foot of the hills through an area dominated by locals. It’s easy to assume these locals are all Thai, but following a conversation with the woman at the tour desk, who turned out to be Laotian, it’s difficult to tell. However, the roadside stalls are doing roaring business with the early morning commuters on their Japanese motorbikes carrying away their lunch in plastic bags which swing from the handlebars. The road is narrow and the traffic heavy, but there is no aggression. No hooting of horns. Bikes, cars, pedestrians, vans and trucks all weave their dance with intricate precision and I walk, often in the road itself, knowing that the traffic will simply flow around me. Want to cross the road? Hold up a hand and a gap appears in the flow for you to cross.

A monk walks the street on his morning alms round
A monk walks the streets on his morning alms round


Unpainted buildings soon get that mouldy look. The locals live here.
Unpainted buildings soon get that mouldy look. The locals live here.
The european look still seems to be the go ...
The european look still seems to be the go …

The road circles me back into the current building zone … unbridled development that is taking away the things that people used to come for and replacing them with resorts, tower blocks of condominiums, bars, massage parlours, loud music, endless shops …

Over all this the call to prayer from the mosque, the song of a Minor bird, the cock crows in the distance, the wind in the coconut palms – such a place of contrasts.

It didn’t rain today! We celebrated by catching the afternoon shuttle down to the beach and had a cocktail and supper while watching the sun go down. The evening hawkers, looking for late in the day last sales, offer us henna tattoos, sunglasses, plastic bangles … one had a small case with nail scissors, clippers, file, tweezers and other mysterious implements. Jacqui’s interest was piqued, the bargaining started, 400 – ok 250 – what about 150, ok 200 … done. All done with hardly a word … just the numbers on a calculator and lots of smiles. We had spent $7 and all concerned were happy.

A diminutive Thai man arrives on a very red Ducati motorcycle, much admired by his friends. It had a go faster exhaust which he loved to demonstrate … brooom, broooom, BROOOOM … he could just about touch the ground with the tippy toes of one foot. He had to dismount to turn it round before roaring off into the distance.

After an excellent supper (around $10 each including Jacqui’s cocktail and my fruit shake), the breeze from the ocean cooled us as we started the walk back along the beach with the sun setting. In front of us, a muslim family string … father first, followed by veiled mother holding child in arms some five paces behind, then by veiled teenage daughter some steps behind her, with veiled five year old bringing up the rear. I always find it difficult to reconcile the apparent suppression of women in the name of religion. Some higher power, always invoked by the men of course, that looks down and says “Women are inferior to men, you must be veiled and keep to your place”. And now we hear that in Pakistan a woman is bludgeoned to death with house bricks by her male relatives, and then that the woman’s husband, who she married for love, had already strangled his first wife (and the law forgave him) so that he could marry her. Later a police official said “It wasn’t an honour killing, it was just a normal murder”. I find all this very difficult to comprehend … the idea of “honour killings”. 800 of them in Pakistan last year … all women of course.

As night falls, we walk back along the artists’ road with paintings of all sizes and kinds on display; each shop has the artist busily working outside. Back at the hotel, we cool off in the pool and do some star bathing, as recommended by Nyamgal Rinpoche many years ago.

It is the monsoon season, and we are treated to a big storm ... heavy rain and lots of noise! And love the love sitting there minding it's own business ...
It is the monsoon season, and we are treated to a big storm … heavy rain and lots of noise! And love the love sitting there minding it’s own business …

We have become Mama and Papa to the locals. “A fresh pancake for Mama?” says the woman behind the breakfast bar. “An omelette for Papa?”. It’s interesting to become the recipient of their respect for older people … everyone is just so helpful. Help-yourself coffee brought to our table … such luxury!

I write this sitting at a table in the roof restaurant, deserted in the mornings. For the first time I hear the baboons hooting to each other in the forest. Good to know they are still there. The hotel itself is on the slopes of the hill which, through our open windows, soothes our eyes as we sit in bed with our early morning tea. This roof gives an expansive view across the town and then on to the beach and headland beyond. The Thai style of building, with it’s ornate roof lines, is steadily giving way to the square concrete blocks of modern asian architecture … quick and easy to build. They are, however, often painted in very bright colours. Bright greens, blues, yellow and reds with the universally blue roof top plastic water tanks setting them off nicely. Those that don’t … those that choose white, especially for the taller blocks, soon take on a dirty and faded look as the mould, so prevalent in the tropics, takes hold. From where I sit a dozen new high-rises are in various stages of construction. Where will they be if the tourists stop coming?

A surprise for us today … an email from the airline changing our departure flight from Phuket to the day before. I suspect it is all to do with the curfew imposed by the Military Government that is currently in charge of things here. We were due to fly out at 6:15am on the 7th, which would have meant leaving the hotel at around 3:30 in the morning. The curfew isn’t lifted until 5am. We now leave on the afternoon of the 6th. We have no real way of finding out the reason for the change so we will just have to go along with it. It does mean booking into the transit hotel in Kuala Lumpa airport, spending more of our precious dollars. On the other hand it means we will have a good night’s sleep before the long (14 hour) flight to London and another world entirely.

It is now evening … and how times change. We get access to WiFi in our room in the evenings here (although not during the day). Jacqui and I sit with laptops on our knees …

The boat across to Phi-Phi Island.
F1 Cruises finest! The boat across to Phi-Phi Island.

Friday and we decide to go and look at the islands and having booked with the 3 in 1 tour operator. We find ourselves after an hour’s drive sitting on the “F1” cruiser in airconditioned comfort. Not quite what we had expected … maybe up on deck with the wind in our hair … but we soon stopped at a small island. The boat was too big to land, so longtail boats began ferrying passengers across to drop them on the beach. We decided not to go, since from where we stood the small island looked very like an ant hill with lines of speedboats disgorging yet more people.

Ant hill island ...
Ant hill island …
Selfies are all the thing these days.
Selfies are all the thing these days.

An hour later, with the rest of the bedraggled passengers back on board we set off for Phi-Phi island, the main destination for the day. It took an hour to get there and when we did a circle around the coast of the island to show off the magnificent limestone cliffs it made the trip worthwhile. It is a beautiful place.

Jacqui enjoying her new camera ...
Jacqui enjoying her new camera …
The amazing limestone cliffs of Phi-Phi island
The amazing limestone cliffs of Phi-Phi island
Jacqui sets off to do some snorkling ...
Jacqui sets off to do some snorkeling …

After a time to snorkel and look at the tropical fish in the almost clear water, we landed at the jetty and wandered through the streets of the small town. No cars! Lovely! We both thought it would be a good place to stay for a few days … much more how we remember Bali from our earlier trips, and no doubt how Patong looked in the 90’s. The trip back was an hour and a half on the boat and an hour in the evening traffic. Still … we felt it was worthwhile.

I just love these tropical skies
I just love these tropical skies

Saturday and we are sitting in a new room in the Patong Bay Garden Resort, right next to the beach. The view is not so good from our room, but the room seems comfortable enough. There is, however, an access door between us and the next room, which I am suspicious about. We can hear the couple next door easily. As the evening goes on they get louder (probably alcohol fueled) and we struggle to sleep until finally Jacqui raises her fist and bangs loudly on the adjoining door and says “Will you keep your voices down please?”. Silence … it worked. Except they then thought to go down to the reception and complain about US making a noise so that the phone rang, just as we were dozing off, to ask us to desist! I won’t mention my reply.

This morning we have changed rooms to one without an access door … interesting that the room feels so much more comfortable. After a beautiful start to the day it has been raining for several hours.

And so the days drift by. It is not very often that one gets a chance to just drift … to let the days unfold as they will.

An early morning walk finds me sitting on the sea wall at the far end of the beach in the shade of a pandanus palm. The tide is out leaving a broad, empty stretch of sand; the water in the horseshoe bay is glassy smooth. The string of perfectly formed fluffy clouds on the horizon dance gently with their reflections. It is very peaceful. The experience quietly shimmers as I contemplate age. Experience seems to have no age attached … it is ageless. Is this true of all experience? Who is it that thinks they are getting old?

Jacqui has had a few things to say. You can find out what at Enjoy!

And then, of course, there are the sunsets!
And then, of course, there are the sunsets!

6 responses to “The start of the Grand European Tour”

  1. Sue says:

    Loved reading about your stay in Patong, having only ever had a stop off in Thailand it is extremely interesting to read of your impressions. Really looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. sue gilling says:

    So gret to read your story which gives a real taste of your travels so far. I am sitting by a window in ancient part of blois, france. Summer has arrived! It is hot compared to cool overcast week while we were in paris. We are loving the history of blois; the cobbled narrow streets and stairways and have great apartment via airbnb. Previous to this we were in tarbes plus an amazing overnight in gite surrounded by pyranees mountains.
    Sending warm wishes to you both. SUE N KEN

  3. Jonathan says:

    Lovely to read your reflections of Thailand Alan; interlacing the many aspects of life. Good to see the close in shots and we particularly liked the building storm cloud.
    Hope to catch up in England!

  4. Ian Gawler says:

    Great narrative Alan, thanks for taking the time to bring this part of the world to life!

    • Christina & Richard says:

      Absolutely marvellous, a great read. Enjoy it all and keep the missives coming – with pix of course. Cheers and love Christina & Richard

    • Christina & Richard says:

      Absolutely marvellous read. Keep the travellers tales coming – with pix of course. Cheers and love Christina & Richard

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